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This page was originally published on March 10, 2023. We’ve since confirmed card reward rates and sign-up bonuses for highlighted cards to help you compare the best cards for your budget and spending habits.
I have praised flat-rate, no-annual-fee 2 percent cash back cards for a while now, but it wasn’t until very recently that I added one to my personal wallet. I’ve always believed in the advice, I just didn’t take it myself for a long time — I guess I was like the shoemaker’s children who have no shoes.
Inflation was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had a lightbulb moment as I was sitting on a cross-country flight to California a couple of weeks ago. I was tallying up how expensive it is to take my family of four on a trip like that, and I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation. I finally decided to take the plunge, because I think this card will earn us an extra $1,000 this year. That’s too good to pass up.
Why I resisted 2% cash back cards at first
For the past couple of years, I’ve only been using two credit cards. As recently as 2020, I had six personal credit cards. I decided that was too many for me — and it was definitely too many for my wife, with whom I share these accounts. She never liked juggling that many cards and struggled with which card offered the best rewards for various types of purchases, despite our attempts at coming up with a system to make it easier.
Back when I expanded to six cards, I started to stray from my no-annual-fee cash back roots to dabble in travel rewards cards that carry annual fees. It was terrible timing, because the COVID-19 pandemic erupted soon afterward and put the kibosh on travel for a while. I quickly decided that I didn’t want to pay annual fees on three different cards, especially given the circumstances.
Even as my family returned to traveling in 2021 and 2022, I didn’t miss the cards that I canceled. I liked the simplicity of a two-card structure, and the two cards I’ve been using suit my lifestyle very well.
For example, I get 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 in annual purchases, then 1 percent) and 3 percent back on U.S. gas station purchases with the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. And the Chase Freedom Flex℠* is best known for offering 5 percent cash back on rotating quarterly categories (up to $1,500 in quarterly spending, then 1 percent; activation required). Both cards also provide excellent customer service and other beneficial perks such as extended warranty coverage, travel insurance and a purchase protection benefit that once saved me $299.
I always knew it wasn’t ideal that many of my purchases earned only 1 percent cash back, but I rationalized it because I liked the cards I was using, and because life gets in the way sometimes. An object in motion stays in motion, in other words. And there are a lot of balls in the air between work, family life, taking care of the house, carving out time for hobbies and so on.
How I plan to use my new 2% cash back card
I’m excited about the earning potential of my new Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card — after overcoming a few hiccups during the first week, including unsuccessful attempts to load the card into my Apple Pay account and having a transaction incorrectly flagged as fraud. My wife and I also decided that she would be the primary account holder, and I would be an authorized user. She doesn’t have any other active credit accounts that are solely in her name, and her credit score has atrophied as a result. But as an authorized user, it’s proven more difficult to speak with customer service than I typically find as a primary account holder. I’m not used to being “player two.”
It has been a bit of an inauspicious beginning, but I’m hopeful things will turn around. On the plus side, we already booked two upcoming trips and paid our younger daughter’s summer camp fees with the card. We’re earning twice as much cash back on those sizable transactions as we would have with our other cards. And now that we’ve hit the spending threshold for the sign-up bonus ($200 in cash rewards after spending $500 in the first three months), a couple hundred bucks are headed our way.
I’m more certain than ever that cash back is the best credit card rewards type for me and my family. I considered a few travel cards, but I really am a cash back loyalist: I like the simplicity, flexibility and universal appeal.
Last year, I earned $1,701 in cash back, which represented an average return of 2.1 percent on every dollar spent on the cards. Raising the floor from 1 percent to 2 percent and continuing to earn even higher payouts in key spending categories such as groceries should, by my calculations, lead to about $2,700 in total cash back this year (assuming my spending remains constant). That would equate to a 3.3 percent blended return.
The bottom line
Personal finance is very personal. What works best for me may not be the best choice for you, but evaluating the best credit cards for any circumstances — including top cards with 2 percent cash back — should follow the same blueprint. Start by asking yourself whether or not you carry a balance on your cards, because if you have credit card debt, the interest rates are so high that you should seek the lowest rate rather than chase rewards.
Beyond that, consider your top spending categories, what you want to get out of your rewards and how much complexity you’re willing to take on. The answers will change over time. Since your lifestyle changes and the market does too, I think it’s a good idea to compare cards at least once a year.
Have a question about credit cards? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help.
*Information about the Chase Freedom Flex℠ has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.